Engaging the Other Side

Whether you are talking about gender or politics, the issue of reaching across the aisle is increasingly urgent. Today, in both areas, we have people talking effectively to a portion of the population – and alienating the rest. What can we learn?

Yesterday, a potential Fortune 100 client called with a familiar brief. “Over the past few years,” they tell me, “we have done a lot of work on diversity, so we aren’t starting from scratch. We have a range of initiatives aimed at empowering women, including a women’s network and a mentoring program. Yet for all our efforts, the needle really hasn’t moved much.”

In most companies, this is the back story. Not enough women in leadership, so companies start a women’s network and a mentoring program. Usually led by women, and aimed at women. Many (although not all) women enjoy these efforts. Most of the men in power are happy to make the ladies happy. They even come along occasionally to ‘support’ or ‘champion’ them.

Now, you could argue that communicating effectively to your base might be argued to work – on one condition. That your base is in power.

In politics, Trump may be historically unpopular to the general American population, but he is, after a tumultuous month in power, historically popular among Republicans. And that is his strategy. Every word, every argument and every policy is aimed – effectively – at his base, who are the group currently in power, with majorities in both the US House and Senate.  One might wonder about the sustainability of a strategy that alienates the majority of a governed population, but those who are out-of-power need to think about how to broaden and engage their base.

Arguing from your own moral position is unlikely to work. A convincing TED Talk by Robb Willer argues that you should stop trying to convince the other side by pushing your own values. He says that we are all ‘arguing in the mirror’, with democrats pushing values that most republicans simply don’t share. Jonathan Haidt makes the same analysis, saying that the value systems that differentiate liberals and conservatives are deep set. You can’t change people’s morals, so you need to identify issues that you do share, and craft more inclusive communications.

Women – and those pushing for gender balance – have much to learn from these analyses. It means that women talking to women won’t change anything. And trying to convince men with arguments that resonate with women is not the solution either. There will only be gender balance if those in power push for it. Too many women think that leaders won’t – and give them a million alternatives so they don’t have to.

How To Cross the Aisle?

First, get a grip. ‘Engaging’ men, as the current parlance would have it, does not mean subjecting them to training courses on unconscious bias. Accusing people of something before they even walk in a room is not a guarantee of making them change their mind. The research is beginning to show it has the opposite effect. Stop it.

Instead, flip the switch. Drop the old vocabulary and its baggage and step into an entirely a new frame. And get in-group leaders to lead the charge.
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Redefine Your Base, Adjust Your Message. Don’t assume that only women want gender balance, it’s not true. There is a gender gap on caring about gender in the workplace, but the men who care about it are crucial. You hugely multiply your audience if you engage everyone interested in balance.  So stop making this about women, start making it about effective leadership and business benefits: performance, talent acquisition, customer satisfaction and insights, innovation.

Let the Powerful Lead. Make leaders accountable for gender balance. Period. No diversity departments, no passing the buck to HR. Measure and compare their balancing skills every six months with appropriate metrics, like any other business objective. The rest is pink-washing. It’s time to call it.

Get Gender Out of Diversity. Putting 60% of global university graduates and 80% of consumer buying decision-makers under the diversity umbrella was always a set-up-to-fail mistake. Women are not a diversity dimension. Stop bundling it that way. Make gender a lever to achieving strategic goals – otherwise no one will care.

We are all accountable for pushing the messages we care about in the world. But in an increasingly polarised world, we should measure ourselves on our ability, not only to build our own Tribes, but to become compelling to other tribes as well.

Why men and women vote differently.

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